Should have worn a wire

I just finished giving my presentation at the Finnish conference on 'the West' where I am right now -- I guess I'm now "liveblogging" it (a term I first encountered in this entry on Marc Lynch's excellent blog) , since I'm actually typing this while the panel is still going on. I love wireless 'Net access :-)

The conference is interesting thus far, although many of the participants seem committed to conflating the analysis of civilizational discourse with the practice of civilizational and anti-civilizational politics. What do I mean by this?

The analysis of civilizational discourse, which is what I do in my book and have done in several articles and papers, means doing an empirical analysis of the "terms of engagement" that people use to shape their relations with one another. Seen from this angle, 'the West' is a political strategy, a way of worlding that envisions certain possibilities while excluding others. 'Civilization' -- in the singular, which is more universalist and messianic than the restricted, exclusive 'Western Civilization' -- represents a different political strategy, a different direction of engagement. When doing this kind of analysis of discourse, one willfully suspends questions about the empirical validity of identity claims (one does not ask "is this really a Western value?") in order to focus on the practical effects produced by particular rhetorical deployments.

Civilizational or anti-civilizational politics, on the other hand, is about deploying particular commonplace elements in order to legitimate one or another course of action -- and in particular, to deploy notions of 'civilization' or 'Western civilization' to this end. [In civilizational politics, the civilization-in-the-singular/civilizations-in-the-plural split is not always so clear, even though it's crystal-clear analytically: 'the West' is conceptualized as one grouping among others, whereas 'civilization' only has as its opposite the barbarian, the savage, or as G.W.Bush put it on Tuesday evening, the "evil".] This can also be anti-civilizational inasmuch as the speaker deploys a notion like 'the West' in order to challenge it (maybe by showing that the West isn't as distinctive as people might think, or showing how "Western" values are borrowed from non-"Western" peoples). But in any event, the focus is on deployment as a means to an end.

There's a relationship here, but it's a relationship that I see as one of primary source material versus secondary source analysis. The analysis of civilizational discourse takes civilizational politics as its source material, and strives to make sense out of what is going on in those political struggles. It does not -- not if the analyst wants to remain on the wissenschaft side of the line -- seek to adjudicate those struggles, or even really to intervene in them. From the perspective of a political actor, this aloofness seems absurd; from the perspective of a scientific analyst, it seems a necessary precondition for doing sound empirical work.

But as the conference goes on I am more and more struck by how people seem to want to blur that line, and use an analysis of civilizational discourse as a way of engaging in civilizational politics. I have both seen instances of the genetic fallacy ('the West' is a bad concept because it emerges from racism or imperialism or whatever), of academic analysis as a political trump-card ('the West' is a bad description of empirical reality and thus shouldn't be used politically), and of claims to superior representation (we shouldn't base our policies on secularism or democracy or whatever because I know that this hasn't always been a component of 'Western values'). Personally, I think that both of these can be useful courses of action, but a) in different fora and b) at different times. And an academic conference does not strike me as the right forum for this kind of thing, and it's just confusing if people switch back and forth, sometimes so quickly that they do it several times in the course of a single presentation or a comment!

Hang on a second, questions coming in to me.

Question about possible conflicts between neoconservatives and religious conservatives in US foreign policy, which I handled by stressing the 'exceptionalist' character of both arguments. Question about whether 'the West' is like other communities, and whether the ideal-typical comments about "community" that I offered to begin my talk were appropriate, which I handled by basically "pulling a Weber" and suggesting that ideal-typification is a stage in singular causal analysis -- we start with some bare things about "communities in general," then the empirical analysis shows how in practice those forms and mechanism and gestures play out, in conjunction with other things. [You can't get much leverage over empirical phenomena by speaking in abstractions, but abstractions can be useful parts of the analysis -- and are in fact indispensable steps in doing good social science.] Question about the difference between conceptual analysis (a la Reinhart Koselleck} and discourse analysis, which I handled by casting some doubt on the utility of analyzing big huge things like "modernity" and instead limiting our empirical focus to specific things like policies or courses of action -- a big conceptual map is a useful ideal-typcial input to such an analysis, but unless we give it some tight focus we all too easily get lost in the speculative clouds. Question about 'new Europe,' which I handled by cribbing a page from Dan Nexon [with citation] and characterized as bad divide-and-conquer tactics. Then there was a question about universals and particulars, which I took as an opportunity to go off a bit on ideal-typification and the civ/civs distinction…

I am enjoying myself, if you can't tell :-)

The title for my post refers to a thought I had about five minutes after I finished delivering my talk: man, I should have clipped on my iPod and mic and recorded the talk, and the podcast the sucker. Would have taken no real time at all. If I'm serious about this "recording artist" model of academia, then don't I have to take advantage of my live performances as opportunities to make and distribute recordings? Missed that opportunity this time :-( Oh well, something to keep in mind for the future.

I wonder if anyone would download those podcasts if I started making them?

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